“I want you to apply for this.” She told me, thrusting a purple piece of copy paper with an application on the front in my hands. An intensive art camp, 100 spaces available. Having drawn in a basic-level arts course for only a few months as a freshman, I was confused and embarrassed from the attention.
I was familiar with her, the teacher who was pushing me to apply, but I’d never had her as a teacher. She was the head of the art department, the big cheese. It took a little convincing to bring me to reach for this program. What did I have as an artist? Or as a person, to deserve this placement? But within a week I had applied for an arts summer camp supplemented by a grant. And it was that camp, 6 months later, that changed the course of everything: an introduction to a creative life with people who I felt comfortable around (an almost impossible combination of words at that point in my life). She introduced me to another world that accepted me more readily than the one I had grown up with.
I was convinced during most of my adolescence, and after that my young adulthood, that something was deeply wrong with me. Fighting unhappiness, fighting isolation, fighting the feeling of rejection that I perceived in every interaction, I swam upstream. We can analyze this past self and try to pinpoint what “othered” me: introversion, acne, funny looks, high sensitivity, obscure interests. But that’s simply a topic only of interest to me. The point is that at that age, the only thing that seems to matter is feeling connected with your peers; with finding common ground and acceptance. My brain ricocheting with self-doubt, I felt worlds away from the majority of my classmates, in a group of friends who I most likely would have called “high risk” when I later became a teacher. What seemed so easy to my peers: simple conversations, topics of interest, natural competitiveness, any extroverted behavior really—felt so far out of my comfort zone I didn’t really believe it was a language I could speak. And when I did want to speak my language, I felt a deep divide between it and my audience. The showing of myself, of the deeper parts of me, was met with confusion. Even if malice or ill-will had nothing to do with my audience’s reaction, my sensitive heart interpreted confusion as rejection. This was the biting loneliness of my experience, one that I worked harder and harder to hide. I understood intuitively what desperation made someone look like, and I didn’t want to look like I needed anything or felt anything was wrong. The dramatic feeling that comes with being a teenager did not help.
The only people, outside of my small group of close-knit, outcast friends, who heard what I was saying without flinching or turning their heads in query, were my teachers. The hole I felt within wasn’t unique, but I couldn’t find my way out of it alone. In art, it was what I needed to express. In English and History, it was in the lives I needed to experience. In music, it was the connection to something deeper and nameless. My teachers could see something, some response to a call they were the bridge to, that I needed. It’s clear to good teachers when a student truly needs the subject they share. They couldn’t provide me with relief from my isolation. That would have to come through years of hard work, and understanding that this was no place for me. But they were the ones who gave me the know-how for this relief; telling me stories about places that captivated me, filling my head with books and songs and encouragement, being the comic relief for the absurdity of growing up. They came in many forms and personalities, but always built space for understanding and curiosity. Teachers above anyone understand the need for wonder. And wonder was in short supply for me outside of school. Through all their actions and words and teachings, I was gently told: this is no place for you. And they, in the way of a village, showed me how to find where it was I needed to be.
Leaving after all these years of forcing myself to find a place in this particular patch of earth, I understand how impossible it was. Understanding can’t be forced the same way love can’t be forced. I can feel the separation between me and my environment in this place, even on short trips home. It’s a place whose workings appeared to be felt and understood intuitively by my parents, my colleagues, and nearly everyone I met. If other people were happy and made a life here, why couldn’t I? Trying hard to make that my life, I looked for approval from people who were devoting their lives to things that held no weight for me. Nothing took. Nothing stuck. Nothing flowed. Stagnant water.
And stagnant water breeds disease.
Now it wasn’t torture. It wasn’t a hole I couldn’t get out of. There was true joy. There was connection and laughter, good experiences and opportunities. This place was brimming, after many years, with people I loved and who loved me. But I still felt the current moving against me. Still felt things were deeply wrong—the way a relationship with someone you love can still feel wrong at the fringes of your consciousness, knowing it isn’t what you need, that there is no future in it. But like any relationship, it is an incubation period for the person you will eventually become.
Coming back and visiting the school I used to teach at this past week, I realize what kept my spirit alive during that adolescence, those darker days before I found a voice and an identity and the confidence to ask for what I wanted. It was teachers. They saw what was in me. Pushed me to learn, to question, to express, to play, and to leave. They nourished this tiny spark of something before I ever would have seen it. They allowed me a space that was without social pressures, a place without hierarchy, a place to play in a mind I could only seem to take seriously. Those hours of play gave me the skills I owe my life to. These were the tools to chisel my way out of a life that wouldn’t fit. These were the modes of expression that would bring me the satisfaction I couldn’t find where I was standing. This was the sweet feeling of accomplishment that needs no outside approval. I can’t imagine where I would be if someone wasn’t there in Year 14 with a hand on my shoulder speaking in a way that made me feel like I belonged somewhere, even if it wasn’t here. It might be that force, unknown to me or at least unarticulated, that brought me to teach adolescents, to open up a space for someone to belong. I didn’t recognize until I left, all these years later, the incredible line of individuals who taught me it was okay to build my own reality, to swim to other waters.
So thank you, teachers; you may never know the lives you make whole.